NEW ORLEANS — Top kill. Junk shot. Cofferdam. Top hat. Capping stack. Those terms — obscure industry jargon before BP’s massive 2010 oil spill — became familiar buzzwords as the company scrambled to find a way to plug its blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico.
More than three years later, the methods that BP used during its 86-day struggle to stop the gusher will be the focus of a trial resuming Monday in the high-stakes litigation spawned by the nation’s worst offshore oil spill.
BP insists that it was properly prepared to respond to the disaster, but plaintiffs’ attorneys will argue that the London-based global oil company could have capped the well much sooner if it hadn’t ignored decades of warnings about the risks of a deep-water blowout.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, who are teaming up with attorneys for the five Gulf states and two of BP’s contractors for the second phase of the trial, also say that BP repeatedly lied to federal officials and withheld information about the volume of oil that was flowing from the well.
“It should pay the price for its choices. BP should be held accountable for the lengthy delay caused by its fraud,” the attorneys wrote in a pretrial court filing.
BP says that its spill preparations complied with government requirements and met industry standards. But the April 20, 2010, blowout of its Macondo well, a mile under the surface and 50 miles off the Louisiana coast, presented “unforeseen challenges,” the company’s attorneys wrote.
“With these uncertain and unique conditions, one overarching principle governed the team’s work: ‘Don’t make it worse,’ ” they wrote, saying BP deserved “recognition, not condemnation” for its spill-response efforts.
The federal judge presiding over the case without a jury has set aside 120 hours over 16 days for the trial’s second phase, which he divided into two segments.
The first part, lasting four days, focuses on BP’s efforts to seal the well. The second segment, lasting 12 days, is designed to help U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier determine how much oil spilled into the Gulf.
Under the Clean Water Act, a polluter can be forced to pay a maximum of either $1,100 or $4,300 per barrel of spilled oil. The higher maximum applies if the company is found grossly negligent, as the government argues BP should be. But the penalties can be assessed at amounts lower than those caps. Congress passed a law dictating that 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP must be divided among the Gulf states.
Barbier has outlined a rigid schedule for attorneys to present their arguments and evidence — and a court reporter will use a chess clock to keep track of time.
The judge set no strict time limits during the trial’s first phase, which ended April 17 after the judge heard eight weeks of testimony about the complex chain of mistakes and failures that caused the blowout.
The first phase featured testimony from high-ranking company executives and rig workers, who described their harrowing brush with death after an explosion on the rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 of their colleagues. The second phase will consist almost entirely of technical testimony by dueling experts in several scientific disciplines.
The Justice Department’s experts estimate that 4.2 million barrels, or 176 million gallons, spilled into the gulf. BP has urged Barbier to use an estimate of 2.45 million barrels, or nearly 103 million gallons, in calculating any Clean Water Act fines. Both sides agree that 810,000 barrels, or 34 million gallons, escaped the well but were captured before they could pollute the gulf.